Ruth Simmons, 25, and Tobi Adebajo, 24, are two queer black women who started Femmes of Colour, the UK collective that offers a “healing and affirming space to celebrate people of color of all genders who are also femme.” It all started with a brunch that Adebajo hosted with her partner in 2016 because she wanted “to be in a room of femmes.” More than 30 people turned up to the gathering at Common House, including Simmons. When it became clear that the brunch was a success, Simmons asked Adebajo to help expand the effort of uniting femmes of color.
Femmes of Colour is situated underneath the umbrella of the Purple Rain Collective, a group that works to support queer people of color in the UK. Both Simmons and Adebajo have done work within Purple Rain. But Femmes of Colour is a positive force in its own right. The group functions both as a gathering space and a support system. And in just one year’s time, it has blossomed into a community of more than 300 members of varying gender identities, experiences, and walks of life.
Designed for collaboration, organization, and networking, Femmes of Colour has gone from crammed brunches at Adebajo’s home to a bimonthly event at Them Downstairs, a queer-centric venue in Kentish Town. The group’s most recent event was an open mic and art display-turned-dance party that lasted until 3 AM. I caught up with Simmons and Adebajo to discuss the work they've been doing and what they've got planned for the future.
VICE: Why was it important to create Femmes of Colour?
Ruth Simmons: Well, where else does it exist? Who else is going to do it? I think it’s needed because we need each other—we need systems of support and networking.
Tobi Adebajo: We know, as black women, that if we’re not doing this shit, then no one is going to. So we decided to do the shit, and it's been great! Why shouldn’t we focus on the feminine side of things? Why is that seen as something that is weak and othered? Within Femmes of Colour, there is an overarching front that is against everything that is toxic about masculinity.
How do you define “femme?”
We have this conversation very regularly, because it means different things to different people, especially when you think about it historically. Femme has been used a lot by lesbians within the LGBTQ community, and sometimes with strict binaries. But I think the word has evolved over time. For me, "femme" is an intersection of my sexuality and gender and the way it positions me within society. When I think of femme, I think about people who don’t ascribe to masculinity in conventional ways.
Can you tell me about one of the most rewarding moments to come out of Femmes of Colour?
Simmons: This may sound a bit dumb, but it was the first time I saw someone cry in public. I’m an emotional person and never really felt comfortable crying in a public space, but someone at one of our events felt comfortable enough to cry. That was the first moment for me to say, OK, wow. This is really doing something. People are finding something here that they maybe don’t have elsewhere.
Adebajo: I would say the feeling of collectivity. There is shared effort in setup, clean up, things like that. I never feel tired after a Femmes of Colour event. I may be physically exhausted from dancing, but never emotionally tired.
Describe the atmosphere at a Femmes of Colour event.
My face always ends up hurting from laughing and smiling.
Simmons: “Warm” is the first thing that comes to mind. We try to make a space as inviting and loving as it can be before people even step into it. So we will get cushions, blankets, fairy lights, materials to make art with, zines if people want to read them, things like that.
How do you build community in a city like London?
London is definitely a tough place to organize in. While I was born and raised here, it can be difficult to find places [to organize in] because so many people, especially queer people of color, are being priced out of neighborhoods and costs are rising everywhere. And spaces being accessible in terms of wheelchair access, cost, and comfort, are hard to find as well. But we’ve just tried to prioritize accessibility and having digital methods of meeting and conversing as well.
Adebajo: The thing I’ve learned the most from organizing everyday is, you can never be a perfect organizer. You’re always going to need to be open to hearing the people around you, the people you are creating space for. That's helped us contribute to community and also be reflective.
What is the importance of intersectionality in both of your lives and work?
Adebajo: Shout out to all the black feminists and womanists! Shoutout to Kimberlé Crenshaw!
Simmons: Intersectionality is great because no one is saying that anyone’s life is easy. No one is saying that your life is a walk in the park. All it's saying is that, in this small way, in this systematic way, your life is slightly easier than someone who does not have that privilege. I’ve struggled with acknowledging privilege. Like with the body-positive movement, even though I am someone who is not completely comfortable with their body, I’m aware that I am a thin person. It's not saying, “Oh I don't experience struggle with my body,” but it’s in a systematic way. I’m not denied healthcare or given discriminatory looks on the street. And it can be hard, but it needs to be done.
How did you find your voices as black women with various identities?
Adebajo: It’s kind of out of necessity, you know? It’s a survival thing. Especially after having my daughter, the need to be more involved with activism became more urgent. This place is not made for us, so by definition, you have to find ways to survive within the UK.
Simmons: I agree, definitely out of necessity. When you’re at the intersection of so many overlapping identities—queer, black, femme, disabled, poor—there’s no other way you can survive if you’re not trying to be aware, looking out for yourself and others, and healing. I can’t see myself as uninvolved, because the work is too important and it has to be done. And it's usually femmes doing it.
Adebajo: Say it again for the people in the back!
Follow Femmes of Colour here.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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